Assessment of the Effects of Chinese Nationalism on China’s Foreign Policy

Adam Ni is a China researcher at the the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University in Sydney. He can be found on his personal website here or on Twitter. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessment of the Effects of Chinese Nationalism on China’s Foreign Policy

Date Originally Written:  April 15, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  June 10, 2019.

Summary:  Chinese nationalism can affect Beijing’s foreign policy deliberations through: 1) framing narratives and debates; 2) restricting Beijing’s foreign policy options; and 3) providing justifications for Chinese actions and/or leverages in negotiations. However, the effects of popular nationalism on foreign policy outcomes may not be significant. 

Text:  Chinese nationalism today is rooted in narratives of China’s past humiliations and weaknesses, present day revival, and aspirations for national rejuvenation. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) actively tries to shape nationalist discourses to bolster its popular legitimacy. State-led nationalism attempts to cast Chinese foreign policy in a positive light, and to prevent discontent on foreign policy issues from kindling widespread criticism of the Chinese government for its perceived weaknesses and inability to uphold Chinese interests and dignity.

The rise of Chinese nationalism is often seen as a cause of China’s increasing assertive foreign policy, including its approach to territorial disputes. The argument is quite simple: China is becoming richer and more powerful, and as a result its citizens are more proud, and this is reflected in China’s new-found confidence. Despite the simple and intuitive appeal of this line of reasoning, the empirical evidence is unclear[1]. Putting aside the complexity of defining Chinese nationalism in the first place, it is unclear that Chinese nationalism is in fact rising. Indeed, there are trends that may be working against rising nationalism, including increased exposure to foreign peoples and cultures due to economic globalization, and improved education.

Despite the lack of clarity regarding Chinese nationalism,  there is evidence that Chinese public opinion is generally hawkish[2]. The Chinese support greater defense spending and using armed forces to deal with territorial disputes, such as these in the East and South China Seas. They also see U.S. military presence in Asia as a threat. Generally speaking, younger Chinese hold more hawkish views than their parents.

Given these hawkish views, and even if assuming Chinese nationalism have risen over recent years, it does not necessarily follow that popular sentiments have a major effect on Chinese foreign policy. One study looking at China’s foreign policy in the South and East China Seas since 2007, for example, found that popular nationalism had minimal effects on China’s assertive turn[3]. Indeed, other factors may be more important in Beijing’s foreign policy deliberations, including strategic considerations and preferences of top Chinese leaders.

The current international environment makes caution all the more important in China’s foreign policy-making. The intensifying strategic competition between the U.S. and China, and the increasing wariness with which countries around the world are viewing China’s growing power, makes China adopting nationalist prescriptions to its international challenges all the more risky.

In addition, China’s authoritarian political system arguably better insulates foreign policy making from public opinion than liberal democracies. For one, the ruling CCP does not face public elections. In fact, the Chinese government has at its disposal a range of powerful tools to shape public opinion, and if need be, shut down public debates. This include powerful state media and censorship systems, and the ability to silence dissent with swift and harsh efficiency.

Another difficulty in linking popular nationalistic sentiments to foreign policy outcomes is that Chinese nationalism gives rise to all kinds of foreign policy prescriptions, including contradictory ones. For example, nationalist discourses can prescribe a cautious approach to China’s international relations that focus on keeping a low profile, instead of advocating a confrontational approach.

Despite the difficulties in conceptualizing and measuring Chinese nationalism, there are a number of ways in which public opinion can affect China’s foreign policy. First, popular nationalist narratives, such as ones based on China’s past humiliations at the hands of encroaching foreign powers, frame and color contemporary foreign policy debates. In fact, a mentality of victimhood makes China more likely to react with a sense of grievance and moral righteousness to perceived slights to its dignity.

Second, Beijing’s spectrum of foreign policy options are constrained by popular sentiments. Perceived weakness and inability to defend China’s interests and dignity is costly for the Chinese government and leaders. The CCP have long feared that popular discontent on international issues could kindle widespread criticism directed at the Chinese government. Moreover, Chinese leaders are keen to appear tough on international issues to the domestic audience lest they weaken their position in the party system vis-à-vis their internal rivals.

Third, domestic pressures are sometimes used as justifications for Chinese actions or leverages in negotiations. Chinese leaders, for example, have attributed China’s more assertive stance in the South China Sea to the hardening of popular opinion[4]. Appeals to domestic pressures driven by nationalistic sentiments do play a role in China’s foreign policy. Whether these purported pressures are real or not is another question all together.

The above analyses indicate that Chinese nationalism could affect China’s foreign policy in a number of ways despite the difficulties of working out precisely how much popular sentiments influence Beijing’s foreign policy deliberations. This inability to measure influence is complicated by the fact that China’s authoritarian system enables the CCP to shape public debates in a way that would be impossible in liberal democracies. The lines between state-led and popular nationalism are blurry at the best of times.

Lastly, understanding nationalist discourses in China is still important for analysing Chinese foreign policy because it provides the domestic context for China’s international actions. There is little doubt that nationalist discourses in China will continue to exert an important influence on Chinese perceptions of its national past and aspirations for the future.


[1] Alastair Iain Johnston, “Is Chinese Nationalism Rising? Evidence from Beijing,” International Security, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Winter 2016/17), 7-43. Available at:

[2] Jessica Chen Weiss, “How Hawkish Is the Chinese Public? Another Look at “Rising Nationalism” and Chinese Foreign Policy,” Journal of Contemporary China, published online March 7, 2019. Available at:

[3] Andrew Chubb, “Assessing public opinion’s influence on foreign policy: the case of China’s assertive maritime behavior,” Asian Security, published online March 7, 2018. See

[4] Ying Fu and Shicun Wu, “South China Sea: How We Got to This Stage,” The National Interest, May 9, 2016. Available at:


Adam Ni Assessment Papers China (People's Republic of China) Nationalism

China’s Options Towards the (Re)emerging Quadrilateral Security Dialogue

Adam Ni is a researcher at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.  His areas of interest include China’s foreign and security policy.  He can be found on Twitter @adam_ni.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  The People’s Republic of China (China) is facing the (re)emergence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, consisting of the United States, India, Japan and Australia.  The unstated aim of the Quad is to constrain China’s growing power in Asia through possible military and economic cooperation that would raise the cost if Beijing challenges the status quo.

Date Originally Written:  February 28, 2018.

Originally Published:  March 5, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a scholar of China’s foreign and security policy.  The article is written from the point of view of Chinese decision-makers considering policy options in response to the Quad’s challenges.

Background:  The Quad can be traced back to 2007 when diplomatic efforts culminated in a multilateral naval exercise off the Bay of Bengal.  While the countries involved contended that their activities were not aimed at China, it was clear that these activities were largely a response to China’s growing power.  However, the Quad was short-lived with Australia pulling out in February 2008 under Chinese pressure[1].

Recently, the Quad has been revived in the face of an increasingly powerful and assertive China with expanded geopolitical ambitions.  In November 2017, officials from the Quad nations met on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in the Philippines and agreed that a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region” is in the interest of all countries[2].  This meeting was followed in January by the meeting of the Quad navy chiefs at the Raisina Dialogue in India.  During the meeting, Admiral Harry Harris, the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, characterized China as a “disruptive, transitional force” in the region, and urged Quad nations to take measures against China’s “unilateral ways to change the use of global commons” and uphold “rule-based freedom of navigation[3].”  This sentiment was echoed by the navy chiefs of the other three Quad nations.

Significance:  While it is still too early to tell what the Quad would entail, in theory, it aims to constrain China’s growing power and to ameliorate China’s behavior by altering Beijing’s strategic calculus.  The military dimension of the Quad could take the form of expanded military cooperation that would raise the cost for China to use or threaten the use of force, including in relation to the East and South China Seas.  The economic dimension could take the form of expanded economic and infrastructure cooperation that would compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a grand plan to reshape the world economy with China at the center.

Option #1:  Reassurance.  China continues to emphasize to the Quad nations its intent to develop peacefully through public statements and diplomatic channels.

Risk:  Without pushing back against the Quad, the Quad nations and others in the region may believe that China is unwilling to impose a cost on them for challenging China’s security and economic interests.  This lack of push back may lead to further coalescence of the Quad and may even draw in other states in the region that have become wary of China’s growing power, including those that have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

Gain:  Option #1 may help to undermine the narrative of an ambitious China with a willingness to adopt coercive means to protect and advance its interests.  This option would strengthen the arguments of domestic forces in the Quad nations that advocate a softer approach in responding to Chinese power.

Option #2:  Punishment.  China applies a high degree of economic and diplomatic pressure on Quad nations to demonstrate the cost of challenging China’s interests and thus deter further challenges.  This option could take the form of economic coercion, formal diplomatic protests, and the downgrading of bilateral cooperation in key fields.

Risk:  Option #2 would strengthen the rationale for the Quad and the argument for constraining China’s power in the first place by demonstrating China’s willingness to adopt coercive measures against those that challenge its interests.  This option may further exacerbate the negative perception of China among the Quad nations, especially where there is already a lively debate about China’s influence (such as in Australia and the United States).  In addition, economic coercion may damage the Chinese economy and in the long run make the target economies less dependent on China.

Gain:  China demonstrating strength and resolve early on may lead to the collapse of the Quad if the Quad nations are not willing to pay the high cost of challenging China’s interests.  For example, Australia is highly dependent on China for trade and investment flows.  The Chinese government could put in place measures to reduce Chinese tourists or students from going to Australia and link these restrictions to Australia’s involvement with the Quad.  Such measures may also deter other regional countries from cooperating with the Quad against China’s interests.

Option #3:  Reassurance and caution.  China continues to emphasize its peaceful intent while also signaling its willingness to impose an economic and political cost on the Quad nations should they continue to challenge China’s interests.

Risk:  Option #3 may not be effective due to a lack of concrete cost imposed on the Quad nations, through, for example, coercive economic measures.  At the same time, the cautioning may be interpreted as an aggressive warning of China’s coercive intent, further exacerbating public anxiety in the Quad nations.

Gain:  This approach may be enough to forestall the further development of the Quad through providing reassurance but also signals China’s resolve to protects its interests.  Option #3’s key benefit is that it does not incur large political or economic cost for China immediately, but hinges Chinese retaliation on further Quad activities.

Other Comments:  The revived Quad is still in the early stages of its development, and it is too early to tell what the Quad would entail.  The above options are presented on the basis that the Quad may involve military and economic dimensions that challenge China’s interests, including its territorial claims in the South China Sea as well as its Belt and Road Initiative.  Given the diversity of strategic interests between the Quad nations in relation to China, there is a likelihood that the Quad will not develop beyond a mechanism for dialogue.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Indrani Bagchi, “Australia to pull out of ‘quad’ that excludes China,” Times of India, February 6, 2008. Available at:

[2] “India-Australia-Japan-U.S. Consultations on Indo-Pacific (November 12, 2017),” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, November 12, 2017. Available at:

[3] “‘China a disruptive power,’ say navy chiefs of Quadrilateral nations,” Times of India, January 19, 2018. Available at:

Adam Ni Australia China (People's Republic of China) India Japan Option Papers United States